Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. I will not read out the entire spiel because noble Lords are familiar with the drill.
My Lords, these regulations were laid before the House on 14 October. As noble Lords will be aware, this is one of a number of statutory instruments that implement the Northern Ireland protocol and technical changes ahead of the end of the transition period. The Government’s priority is to ensure that the high standard of food and feed safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country continues to be maintained now that the UK has left the EU, and beyond the end of the transition period.
The instrument does not introduce any changes that will impact the day-to-day operation of food businesses, nor does it introduce any new regulatory burdens. The overarching aim of the SI is to provide continuity for business. It will reflect our obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol and ensure that, following the end of the transition period, high standards of safety and quality for food and feed regulation will continue across the UK. These regulations concern food and feed law. The instrument is made under the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to make necessary amendments to UK regulations. It follows on from the 17 EU exit instruments in the field of food and feed safety made in 2019, which I will refer to as the 2019 regulations.
I must briefly draw attention to two technical corrections to the original SI, which were identified after the SI was laid and have been rectified by means of a correction slip. The corrections are as follows. First, on page 1, Regulation 1(2) previously read:
“Part 2 and Part 4 come into force on”.
It is now corrected to read:
“This Part, Part 2 and Part 4 come into force on”.
Secondly, on page 12, in Regulation 10(13), in the inserted Regulation 20A(b)(i), the substituted text at lines four and five, “may made regulations”, has been corrected to read “may make regulations”. Officials in the devolved Administrations have been kept fully informed.
The primary purpose of the instrument is to provide necessary amendments to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in the field of food and food safety by ensuring that retained EU law on food and feed applies only to Great Britain. It does so by removing references to Northern Ireland authorities and revoking corrections previously made to Northern Ireland domestic legislation in the 2019 regulations. EU food and feed legislation will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. For example, those functions currently undertaken by the European Commission to review and make changes to legislation were assigned by the 2019 regulations to the “appropriate authority”, these being the relevant Secretary of State in England and the relevant Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To implement the Northern Ireland protocol, it is now necessary to amend the definition of “appropriate authority” in retained EU law to remove references to Northern Ireland.
The secondary purpose of the instrument is to remedy deficiencies in retained European Union food and feed legislation. In particular, it accommodates legislation that has come into force since the 2019 regulations were made. The amendments are technical in nature—for example, removing references to the EU and its institutions, which will no longer be appropriate following the end of the transition period. Amendments include, for example, consolidating provisions allowing for the words “United Kingdom” or the abbreviations “UK” or “GB” to be used on identification marks. Similarly, amendments to the general food law will allow a period of 21 months after the end of the transition period for products of animal origin carrying a “UK/EC” identification mark to be placed on the English market. This measure should reduce the impact of the change in requirements for identification marks. Similar provision is expected to be introduced in Wales and Scotland.
A public consultation on the statutory instrument was issued in August. We remain grateful to the stakeholders who responded, with the majority being supportive of the legislative approach. All devolved Administrations have been closely involved in the development of this instrument and all have provided their consent for it.
In conclusion, I take the opportunity to reassure the Grand Committee that the overarching aim of the SI is to provide continuity for business. It will reflect our obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol and ensure that, following the end of the transition period, high standards of safety and quality for food and feed regulation will continue across the UK. Having effective and functional law in this area is key to ensuring that the standards of food safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country are maintained in the immediate and long term. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out the regulations so clearly. As she says, they are technical in nature. Their purpose, as I understand it, is essentially twofold. The first is to provide in regard to a range of food and feed hygiene regulations for the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which I understand and support, and to address a range of deficiencies in retained EU law in this area. The second purpose is largely to take account, as my noble friend said, of changes made in the law after withdrawal from the EU and during the implementation period.
I have some general comments to make and a few questions to ask, rather than raising a specific issue on any of the deficiencies which the regulations seek to address. I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is speaking in the debate. He will doubtless have some telling points to make about areas where he certainly knows a thing or two.
I have two questions, if I may, on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The first relates to future divergence, which I assume is to happen at some stage. What is anticipated for our future law in this area and, if we diverge, what frictional pressure points will arise as a result of Northern Ireland continuing to follow the EU position while Great Britain ploughs its own furrow, if I may risk mixing the metaphor?
My second question relates to the protocol and paragraph 7.8 of the Explanatory Memorandum, on allowing
“the words ‘United Kingdom’ or the abbreviation ‘UK’ to be used on health and identification marks.
It also allows, according to the memorandum, for a continuation of the abbreviation “GB” as this is the International Organization for Standardization’s two-letter code for the United Kingdom—so “GB” and “UK” are to be used for the United Kingdom. This might appear curious and quaint and would perhaps not be a serious issue if Northern Ireland were going to be treated like the rest of the United Kingdom, but it is not. I understand why and, as I said, support that but it is a recipe for confusion if labelling is to be used in this way. It means that “UK” can be used for England, Wales and Scotland and “GB” can be used for the United Kingdom, while Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, is to be treated as if it were a part of the EU. It smacks very much of one of those brilliantly funny episodes of “Yes, Minister”, but I suggest that it could cause confusion here. Is the Minister able to unravel this confusion a little?
I have further questions about the consultation, or should I say consultations, conducted in relation to these regulations and the impact statement—I do not think that it is an impact assessment—in the Explanatory Memorandum. I think my noble friend referred to the consultations. To the first consultation, which was made between 4 September and 14 October 2018, there were 50 responses. It is noted in the Explanatory Memorandum that 82% either
“supported or did not disagree with the … approach”.
I wonder if we can break that down a little, because there seems to be a very real difference between supporting and not disagreeing. In the second consultation, conducted more recently, between 20 August and 16 September this year, there were far fewer responses—only seven—but 71% supported it. It does not suggest that they “supported or did not disagree”. The approach in the latter consultation seems far more sensible, as it says how many people supported it and what percentage they were.
The memorandum went on to say that 29% of replies to the second consultation—the balance of them—“had mixed comments”, but there is no further elucidation of what they were. Presumably, those mixed comments involve some criticisms, if those people are not supporting the regulations for some reason or another. I wonder what those mixed comments are and I would be grateful if my noble friend could clear up some doubt on those points.
With regard to the impact statement, it is suggested that the impact on 200,000-plus agri-food businesses is that it will take each one an hour to read, digest and disseminate the information. I would suggest that that stretches credulity a little; there is far more meat in these regulations than an hour’s work. Does my noble friend have any comment on that, as it would seem to be greater than that? It also talks about the impact of familiarisation on the 419 local authorities and 22 port authorities affected. It does not say how minimal that impact is, unlike in relation to agri-food businesses. Has any assessment been made of the impact it will have on our local authorities and port authorities? I would be grateful if my noble friend could cast aside some doubt on that.
I do welcome the regulations in a couple of respects. The 21-month buffer period for the use of labels seems a common-sense approach. I also very much welcome the involvement of the devolved authorities. I hope that that approach will be followed in other regulations and orders where it has a considerable impact. That is a fundamental concern of the devolved Administrations, and I am relieved and pleased to note their involvement. With that, noting the concerns I have raised, I certainly support the regulations.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations. As I think I said in an aside when I signed on, I have never believed in Parkinson’s law so I will not take very long. The regulations are a good set of amendments to the law. I am a bit surprised that nobody with a Northern Ireland connection has turned up for this debate because if ever there was an example of the boundary and border down the Irish Sea, it is these regulations. What they do is to classify and regulate; they make it crystal clear that there is now a border down the Irish Sea. I am not opposed to that reality but the fact is that we were told it was not going to happen.
The industry affected by these regulations, food and feed, taken in its totality, is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. It is very varied, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said; its 220,000 businesses have been referred to, and I think there may be 500,000 to 600,000 restaurants, cafés and so on. The rest are factories, small firms and farms.
These are massive regulations. In fact, I misread the size of them and printed them by mistake, rather than searching them. I can well understand that for the specific company or business concerned, it should not take more than an hour to sort out the change in the regulations. Nobody, except I suppose the FSA itself, is responsible for the whole of these regulations—responsibility is probably shared with Defra as well. I can well understand the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, but the fact is that this is spread across the businesses.
I too was curious about paragraph 7.8’s explanation of whether “GB” equals “UK”. I never came across the International Organization for Standardization using “GB” to mean “UK” during my time at MAFF, Defra or the FSA. I well understand the potential confusion this may cause, specifically because Northern Ireland will be treated differently from Great Britain in respect of food and feed regulations. Reading paragraph 7.8 took me to paragraph 7.9. I made a couple of inquiries of the FSA, as it says at the end of the memorandum, “If you have a query, email Karen Pratt at the FSA”. I did that on two issues and Karen gave a brilliant response on behalf of the FSA. Overall, the Explanatory Memorandum is a model of its kind because it is so clear. I emailed about paragraph 7.8 and I am satisfied with the answer I received about slaughtering animals on the farm in certain circumstances. The other issue I raised concerned the British islands.
I have one query because my memory is uncertain on it. Paragraph 7.17 of the Explanatory Memorandum concerns Chernobyl and Fukushima. I thought that it was the case that we had lifted all of the Chernobyl restrictions in the UK regarding what would happen to sheep from the hills before they could go off to slaughter. I thought that we had got over all of that and we were clear. Do I take it that this applies only to imports from countries that are closer to Chernobyl than we are which may still have Chernobyl-type restrictions on bringing food animals to market in order to make sure that they are absolutely clear? I would like some clarity on that.
That said, this is a sensible change in the regulations that will get rid of some errors and consolidate a lot of other points, although I think that consolidation of the law in this respect will be required after we have finally broken clear of the EU once a deal has been done. However, I put on the record that after 1 January, the Food Standards Agency will not be responsible for the chaos at ports, or for the delays and shortages of food imports, which will be an inevitable consequence of the crazy way that we are leaving the EU. I have made my political point, if you like, because I want to defend the FSA. This is not its responsibility. With that, on behalf of the Opposition, for which I am guesting today, believe it or not, I consent entirely to these regulations.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their contributions to the debate and I am glad that the regulations as outlined have been broadly welcomed. I shall pick up on the point made by my noble friend Lord Bourne, which lies at the heart of the approach in the protocol to a number of issues around where future regulations may be made and the scope for divergence between GB and Northern Ireland. On the approach to future policy, food and feed safety is one of the policy areas subject to detailed discussions between the Government and the devolved Administrations to explore what common framework arrangements are needed now that we have left the EU. The Food Standards Agency continues to have close working relationships with the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is a commitment to a common approach across the UK, with the potential for evidence-based divergence. Good progress is being made to identify where common approaches are needed and what they might look like, along with the operational elements of the framework, such as how decisions will be made and the roles and responsibilities of each Administration.
A common framework will facilitate trade between different parts of the UK and help it to fulfil its international obligations, safeguard common resources and protect the UK internal market. I think that the question put by my noble friend was more about the potential divergence between GB, which will not follow the EU acquis, and Northern Ireland, which will, but the comments I have just made reflect the fact that policy in this area has been devolved to Wales and Scotland.
On Northern Ireland, there is of course also the potential for divergence if the EU changes its rules and regulations in this area. Under the Northern Ireland protocol, we have established the joint consultative working group. It will have both UK and EU representatives on it and will meet once a month, serving as a forum for the exchange of information and mutual consultation. The protocol provides that there will be an exchange of information about planned, ongoing and final measures in the EU laws listed in the annexes to the protocol and the EU shall inform the UK about planned EU Acts within the scope of the protocol, including EU Acts that amend or replace those listed in the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK will continue to engage with the EU through the joint consultative working group and other committees to be set up under the protocol. This will facilitate the exchange of information and ensure that, from the perspective of Northern Ireland consumers, their interests are being represented and considered in EU decisions.
The noble Lords asked a number of other questions. My noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about the UK versus GB labels, the consultation responses, the impact assessment and the assessment that it would take around an hour to digest the changes in this statutory instrument. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, also asked about the approach to Chernobyl and Fukushima. If they will allow me, I will give precise answers to their questions in writing as soon as possible after this debate and thus give them the clarity that they deserve. However, I think that we are all in broad agreement about the benefit of these regulations and I commend them to the Committee.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.15 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.